In 1983, a troubled 14-year-old boy named Richard S. ran away from his group home in San Mateo, California. Richard – who never knew his father and whose mother died when he was a small child – was in desperate need of an adult he could trust. A juvenile judge referred the boy to Dr. William Ayres, a prominent Yale-trained child psychiatrist who had been evaluating juveniles for the San Mateo County juvenile justice system since the 1960s.
At Richard’s first counseling session, the hulking six-foot-plus Ayres – well-known in San Mateo County for his pompous airs – demanded that the boy remove his clothes for an “examination.” Then, as Richard recalls, Ayres forced the young boy to masturbate him, and masturbated Richard. More than three decades later, Richard, now serving 25 years to life in a California prison on a three-strikes theft conviction, still gets a stricken look on his face at the memories of Ayres “getting nasty” and threatening him when he balked at performing oral sex on the doctor.
“I do remember Dr. Ayres telling me that if anyone found out or if I told anyone that he would come back and get me and nobody would believe me because I was a troublemaker and already in jail,” Richard, now 46, remembers. One of his wrists still bears the scars from a suicide attempt he made in juvenile hall after Dr. Ayres molested him. “I cut my wrist before because the thought of doing what he made me do continues to bother me,” he said.
While Richard suffered for years believing he was Ayres’ only victim, San Mateo police estimate that Ayres – a former president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry – molested at least 1,000 boys over the 40 years he treated both private adolescent patients and juvenile offenders in San Mateo County.
Although victims had been coming forward since the 1960s, Ayres was able to shut down their complaints – and a police probe in 1987 – by falsely claiming that he had been trained to give boys genital exams at a child guidance clinic in Boston.
In 1994, a man wrote to the California Medical Board to say Dr. Ayres had molested him as a juvenile in 1966. He never received a response.
It wasn’t until 2002, after I called the San Mateo Police Department to report that Ayres had molested a friend of mine, a private patient of Dr. Ayres in the 1970s, that a criminal case finally began to gain traction.
The detective in charge of the Ayres criminal investigation revealed to me that in 1994, a patient at Atascadero, a California state hospital for convicts, had confided to a nurse during an evaluation that Ayres had sexually assaulted him as a juvenile. “What Ayres did to this guy and others made their lives go bad,” the detective said. “We believe that most of Ayres’ victims ended up in prison.”
In a 2004 deposition for a civil suit brought by a victim, Ayres said that in some years juvenile referrals constituted as much as 15 percent of his practice. Unfortunately, while the police were able to seize records for Ayres’ private patients in the criminal investigation, they couldn’t get access to the names of his juvenile referrals.
In 2013, Ayres pleaded no contest to molesting five boys who had been private patients. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. (In addition, prosecutors said at least 50 more patients outside of the statute of limitations had come forward.) However, none of the juveniles referred by San Mateo County to Dr. Ayres ended up being part of the criminal case.
I’ve always held a fierce belief that the voices of the juvenile victims in this tragic case should be heard. Over the years I made some attempts, without success, to locate those victims. In February 2007, two months before Ayres was arrested, I emailed the San Mateo Private Defenders Office to ask that they review and investigate all cases in which its attorneys had hired Dr. Ayres in juvenile cases. They said no. Myra Weiher, Assistant Chief Defender, wrote, “It would not be appropriate ... to ask our attorneys to contact the clients who may have seen Dr. Ayres as part of their cases.”
Three years ago, just months before Ayres pleaded no contest, I decided to give my hunt for his juvenile victims one last shot. Working on the detective’s theory that most of them had ended up in prison, I wrote to prisoners convicted in San Mateo County. I included a news story about Ayres’ arrest but was careful not to reveal any details of his molestation of other victims. I also placed a small ad in Prison Legal News, asking former juvenile patients of Dr. Ayres to contact me.
It was only a matter of weeks before the letters, heartbreaking and horrifying, started pouring in. Prisoners who said they’d never told a soul about the abuse until they contacted me described assaults far more severe than what I knew about those inflicted by Ayres on his private patients. The men who wrote to me came from all backgrounds. They were African American, Hispanic, white. The youngest to write me was 22; the oldest 58.
Two victims recalled telling authorities at juvenile hall that Ayres had molested them, only to be thrown into an isolation unit as punishment for speaking out. And in a letter that was especially painful to read, one man described being raped by Ayres at the age of 12 “at least 7 to 10 times” and “bleeding” afterward. “He told me he couldn’t be hearing me, a little boy crying,” the prisoner wrote. In another letter he described how Dr. Ayres used to threaten him if he ever told anyone: “[He] told me that I’ll have to go to Y.A., Youth Authority and that they would beat me up and they would make me into a woman, and he scared me and since he was a grown man, what could I do.”
Another prisoner serving time for a sexual assault reflected on the impact of Ayres’ sexual abuse. “Unfortunately I fell into the cycle of turning my pain into anger and hurting others,” he wrote. “After thinking back about what happened to me I believe that incident was one of many factors to desensitize me to sexual behavior.”
One man who responded to my Prison Legal News ad, who was molested by Ayres at juvenile hall in the 70s, urged me to contact his younger brother, also a former juvenile offender. Sure enough, it turned out that the younger brother had been molested by Ayres, too. In all those years neither brother had known the other was a victim, and when they spoke about Ayres for the first time on the phone, they cried.
Dr. Ayres died at the age of 84 at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville on April 20, 2016. During the two-and-a-half years he was behind bars, he was anything but a model prisoner. A month before he died, in an email to a victim, a prosecutor on the Ayres case described his behavior in prison as that of a “bitter, violent, crotchety old man and he keeps hitting staff members and his peers.... He had to actually be pepper sprayed one time and he has been referred to the San Joaquin DA’s office for battery charges (although they didn’t file [because] of the dementia apparently). He has three separate ‘serious rule violations’ that have resulted in denial of privileges and loss of credits ... Mr. Fancy Pants has become a prison thug!”
For Dr. Ayres’ victims, the damage he inflicted will leave lifelong emotional scars. Sadly, too many of his victims I have known have died – in motorcycle and car crashes or through alcohol and drug abuse. Many have been lost to suicide. In 2011, one 48-year-old victim who had been severely depressed parked his car on a California freeway and ran out in front of a motor home. He was killed instantly.
Some prisoners are now beginning to speak out about Ayres’ abuse to mental health professionals or men’s groups at their prisons. Others have told their appellate and parole attorneys. But a note of caution: it won’t necessarily be an easy road for those who are coming forward. For example, in one instance, at the urging of his parole attorney and a counselor at his prison, a prisoner told the Parole Board in December 2013 that he had been molested by Ayres as a juvenile in the 1970s. Attending the hearing was San Mateo prosecutor Peter Lynch, who had been added to the Ayres case after the first prosecutor, Melissa Mckowan, was disciplined by the State Bar for misconduct in that case.
But Lynch chose not to disclose to the Board that he had worked on Dr. Ayres’ criminal case and therefore had a potential conflict of interest. In an effort to discredit the prisoner seeking parole, Lynch made a series of false statements to the Parole Board about the case, including claiming that the prisoner was making up the story about being abused in the 70s, because “there’s nothing about what Ayres did that predated the 1980s.” In fact, victims from the 1960s and 70s testified at Dr. Ayres’ trial, and the juvenile who had been molested in 1966 spoke at Ayres’ sentencing.
Some prisoners have written to Hillcrest Juvenile Hall for their records, only to learn they were destroyed in a large “purge” in August 2009. The timing of the purge is curious, given that it came just days after the first Ayres trial ended in a mistrial, and the San Mateo DA’s office had received requests from news organizations about the juvenile records during the ongoing criminal case. And although legally Hillcrest can destroy juvenile records after the defendant’s 38th birthday, three victims of Ayres were in their 50s when their records were destroyed in the 2009 purge. Additionally, when an ABC news Bay Area television reporter filed a public records request to find out who had ordered the destruction of the records, San Mateo County denied her request.
Several prisoners have contacted or been contacted by civil attorneys about suing Dr. Ayres and/or San Mateo County for continuing to send juveniles to Ayres despite decades of complaints and police investigations. They have been told that the small window of opportunity to sue San Mateo County has passed. Four private patients successfully sued Ayres and his former practice, Peninsula Psychiatric Associates, resulting in settlements ranging from $80,000 to $400,000. The attorneys who represented victims in those cases were Jean Starcevich, Bob Tobin (now deceased) and Joe Carcione. Another private patient who filed suit died of alcoholism before the case was completed. A private patient who filed a lawsuit in 2007 that remains pending is represented by attorney David Drivon.
Former San Mateo juvenile judges Patricia Bresee and Margaret Kemp, who referred boys to Dr. Ayres, have publicly expressed regret for unknowingly putting those juveniles in harm’s way. But for the most part the San Mateo District Attorney’s office, the San Mateo Private Defenders Association and other agencies have not made any public statements or apologies for sending children to Ayres.
Juvenile Judge Marta S. Diaz, who, according to Dr. Ayres in a 2004 deposition, referred juveniles to him when she was a prosecutor in the San Mateo District Attorney’s office from 1981 to 1994, and then continued to do so when she became a juvenile judge, has never apologized nor made any statement of support for the juveniles she sent to Ayres. The only comments Judge Diaz made on this matter were to a legal publication, the San Francisco Daily Journal, in 2009. When asked about accusations that she had protected Ayres, Diaz accused victims’ advocates of having a “little jihad against me.” She then went on to say, “I don’t care. I know it’s all bullshit. All will come out.” Diaz continues to serve as a judge in San Mateo County.
Two years ago I turned over all of the letters from Ayres’ juvenile victims that I had received to the Special Litigation section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, along with a request that special counsel be appointed to conduct a review of the juvenile cases in San Mateo County in which Ayres was involved. That had been done before in similar cases. In 2010, after Calgary, Alberta psychiatrist Dr. Aubrey Levin was arrested for molesting men in court-ordered sessions, the Alberta Justice Department reviewed all cases where Levin had been an expert witness in the past 20 years to determine if any testimony had been tainted. But to date, I have not been able to persuade the Justice Department to do the same for the hundreds of juvenile victims of Dr. Ayres.
However, I am not giving up hope. I believe it’s only a matter of time before a legal or juvenile rights organization steps up to the plate to advocate for the forgotten juvenile victims of Dr. William Ayres. For that reason, I strongly encourage other victims to contact me at the address below.
Victoria Balfour, a former People magazine reporter, has written for The New York Times and the Washington Post. In 2009 she received the Award for Excellence in the Media for Meritorious Public Service for her investigative and advocacy work on the Dr. Ayres criminal case, at the 14th International Conference on Family Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego. She wrote this article exclusively for PLN and is responsible for its content. If you are a victim of Dr. Ayres, please write to her at: Victoria Balfour, 151 College Avenue, Apt.1, Poughkeepsie, New York 12603.
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